Monday, October 19, 2009

Vain Expectations - A Sermon

I may have made a mistake naming this sermon. When I phoned the title into our secretary, she asked me, “Is that Vane Expectations, Vein Expectations or Vain Expectations?” All sorts of images popped into my head. For V-A-N-E, I envisioned a weatherman staring at a barn’s weather vane saying, “Move! Move! I gotta report something!” For V-E-I-N, I saw a vampire in his coffin dreaming dreams of fat, luscious arteries. Unfortunately, for V-A-I-N -- a word that means to have an excessively high opinion of oneself but als means and to have little meaning or likelihood of fulfillment, the picture in my mind was my ordination.

I was ordained with, I think, 10 other priests down at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, there was a moment during the rite when, according to my parents, all of us ordinands just disappeared. My mom and dad looked at each other and said, “Where did they go?”

Where we went was down on the floor lying on our stomachs, spread eagle. This was supposed to be a sign of our humility as well as our obedience.

As a class, we had had the option of kneeling instead of prostrating ourselves, and I had voted for kneeling. I figured it was so showy that this supposed act of humility was in fact designed to draw attention to us and our holiness. I lost the vote, so there I was looking at the cathedral’s floor from a new perspective thinking, “First they don’t let us get ordained individually in our own churches, as is tradition, and now we have to embarrass ourselves in front of all these people. This is not what I expected for my ordination!”

Then I remembered something Dear Abby had written to a young bride upset about her mom messing up what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Abby said, “My dear, I hope it’s NOT the happiest day of your life because then, what would the future hold for your marriage? Remember, the marriage is important, not the ceremony.” And I remembered that the ministry was important, not the ceremony.

Keep that in mind. We have all sorts of expectations, like James and John who want to sit at Jesus’ right and left. They feel they deserve this honor because they are the sons of thunder, loud brash, undoubtedly brave. They’re the enforcers of the disciples, and if Jesus has something tough to do, as he’s been hinting, they’re his guys. They expect Jesus to look at them and say, “Well, of course, you’re the best. Come on up!”

Of course, it looks like what they really want isn’t the work of ministry at all but an impressive position. They want people to admire them. They like the idea of being up on the podium with Jesus looking impressive -- but they haven’t grasped that it’s the ministry that’s important to Jesus, not the ceremony. That to be with Jesus means to suffer -- to empty oneself.

The writer of Hebrews gets it. Even speaking to a Jewish audience, even using the example of a Jewish High Priest, the writer understands that the job of the priest is to be gentle and humble, to know his own faults and lift them up to God for mercy as well as those of the people. The irony of this touching picture is that a lot of high priests saw their office as a gravy train. Great income, flashy clothes, respect from the little people -- and little responsibility or care for anyone else.

James and John apparently have that ironic image in their minds when they approach Jesus. Jesus reminds them of the truer high priestly ministry.

I don’t want to be too hard on James and John, however. They’re a lot like us. We look to God or the church or life in general and we have our expectations, too. How do I know? Because I hear people all the time saying “That’s not how it’s supposed to be.” Or “I did all the right things and look where it got me.” Or “If God really loved us, he wouldn’t let all these bad things happen.” And so on.

Because we think like James and John -- and Job. Job thinks that if you do only good things like him -- even praying for his children in case their prayers aren’t up to snuff -- then things will go right because God will make them right. And right, he just knows, means that you’re wealthy and healthy.

When God fails to meet his expectations, Job takes God to court. That’s what we see in our passage today. God is now answering Job’s charges. Job has essentially said, “You aren’t keeping your part of the bargain. I behaved, and you didn’t deliver.”

God’s response? “Did you make the world? Do you understand everything? Are you God? Who said you got what you wanted because you did good? Who said that was even the point?” Not the response Job is looking for -- he’s so sure of his case because it’s what everyone believed back then. Good things happen to good people. God said “NO.”

So, if James and John are wrong to expect a strong response from Jesus based on their own strong personalities, and Job is wrong to expect sympathy from God based on his exemplary behavior, what CAN we expect from God?

Not justice in this world. Not fairness. Not proper liturgy or a position based on what we deserve. Not even a meal. Not even life itself. No, what we can fairly expect from God is only one thing.

God loves us.

All else is vanity.

But that love is enough. It is enough to make sense of this strange life. It is enough to give us hope for life eternal with God. It is enough to infect our small lives so that it flows through us. It is enough to drive you and me and all of St. James’ and the whole church to seek out Christ in others. Serving, rejoicing with, caring for, breaking down barriers.

God’s love, ever flowing, never ceasing is the only thing we can expect, but that expectation is not vanity. It is everything we can ever hope for. Amen.